Saturday, January 2, 2010

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 23: "The Attic"

Those Matrix comparisons are looking more and more apt. Matrix posited a world in which man’s creations escaped his control, enslaved mankind, using their bodies as a power source; consciousness, for the Machines, was an obstacle to be overcome. Hence the Matrix, the ultimate distraction. Keep ‘em fat and happy, give ‘em bread and circuses, McD’s and CNN. Dollhouse is, in essence, looking at that vision of the future and saying, “how naïve. You think the Enemy is going to be content to leave consciousness alone and unexploited? Furthermore, you think the Enemy is going to be a Them – Machines? The Enemy is, has only ever been, and always will be: us.” (Victor fighting himself in an Afghanistan of the mind.)

That’s one dimension the Attic moves in. The image of the Corporation feeding on humanity itself – just like in the Japanese programmer’s nightmare, wherein he’s constantly consuming himself (a distant echo of workaholism, I guess, but also a mighty hint of the Attic’s true purpose). Now connect this understanding of Attic-as-center-of-productivity with our previous understanding of the Attic as a prison, a warehouse for broken (i.e., disobedient) dolls. What does this suggest about the role of prisons in society? Exploitative much? Last episode we looked at the military-industrial complex (manufacturing endless wars to fuel manufacturing, one product of which is people who fit a certain mold); maybe now we’re looking at the prison-industrial complex.

But the Attic is also metaphysical. Dollhouse doesn’t wear its spiritualism on its sleeve like Matrix, but it’s just as sophisticated in its engagement with discourses of enlightenment, transcendence, ghosts in machines. The Attic is Hell: this is repeated a number of times. Echo, the Heroine in the making, must pass through Hell. And she doesn’t just pass through it: she starts busting things up. She harrows it, releasing at least two of its captives. She dies, rises from the dead, then raises two of her friends from the dead. This is some serious hero-construction here.


Where do we end? With the new League of Justice gathered in DeWitt’s office, ready to take on the world-destroyers. Now we finally know that DeWitt is on our side, and probably always was. In fact, I think this scene is hinting at just how far back DeWitt’s plans go. We know that DeWitt sent Echo into the Attic hoping she’d learn something. But I think DeWitt brought Caroline into the Dollhouse in the first place for the same reason. Notice how this last scene starts: closeup on Echo with that red wall in the background. It’s the same room we started the whole series in, where Caroline signed the contract with DeWitt. It’s such a similar setup that we might for a moment think we’ve flashed back to that moment in time. After all, we’ve just learned that Caroline knows the founders of the Attic: we’ve just had Caroline’s presence invoked, and it’s just about to be invoked again. Maybe DeWitt’s original bargain with Caroline was part of a scheme they both had to bring down Rossum.


At last I can say I’m fully hooked on this series again. Probably alone among Dollhouse fans, I never felt the second season quite equalled the first (scattered moments such as “Belonging” aside). But these last two episodes really had me in the chair. What's changed? I'm not sure. There's still not much in the way of a hint that the future of "Epitaph One" can be averted - I suppose we still could be told it was All a Dream, one of Clyde's nightmares, but I don't (want to) expect that. So there's still not much big-s Suspense. Rather, I think it's that the show had me emotionally invested in its characters this time and last: Priya (no coincidence, I think, that my previous favorite ep of the season was "Belonging"), Victor, Echo, even DeWitt in her alcoholic stupor.

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 22: "Stop-Loss"

This might be my favorite episode of the season so far. The Love Supreme is, of course, the one that proceeds from deepest within, transcending any superficialities of personality: Victor and Sierra have it.

And what does it inspire? Grouping, in their doll-state: a primal reflection of the deep commitment that mature love inspires, commitment that can lead to a life-sharing so thorough that the people involved can feel part of one another. Lenono. So isn’t it interesting that this kind of grouping is what enables Victor/Anthony to resist the groupthink of Mind Whisper?

Dollhouse has always been about the individual and the collective, the question of whether the collective can/should/does demand the individual surrender her autonomy. Doll technology is, by its very existence, an affront to the notion of personal autonomy: it threatens to dissolve us all into a sea of undifferentiated tools of Rossum. What this episode does (unexpectedly, I might add: the first time in a while they’ve blindsided me with subtext: cool) is present the possibility that we might be dissolved into a sea of undifferentiated consciousness, not only our individual autonomy gone, but our individuality itself.

Mutant Enemy gives this to us in the context of a Supersoldier plot. It’s a familiar device, not only from sci-fi and comic books, X-Files and X-Men, but also Buffy Season 4: if it comes a little out of the blue here, it certainly fits in with Rossum. Is anybody surprised they have a military contracting wing?

And it fits in perfectly with Dollhouse’s themes. The military is only the most obvious way in which the modern state tries to mold, remake, define, standardize, not to mention control, its citizenry. The rhetoric is inescapable and callused: the individual recruit is turned into a fighting machine, or a part in a larger fighting machine. Intentionally dehumanized: see Full Metal Jacket. Cannon fodder, human bullets: the soldier is the emblem for how the modern state sees its people: as resources, tools, component parts. That the soldiers themselves might have the best of intentions and the deepest of personal tragedies doesn’t change things: we can weep for Victor, even as we recoil in horror from the group to which he devotes himself.

Does anybody really leave the Dollhouse? No, or at least not more easily than soldiers can leave the army in these days of endless war, of stop-loss programs. (There’s a lot to notice in this episode vis-à-vis recent military history. Boyd’s mention of Blackwater is just the start. Note Victor, Echo, Sierra in their black hoods. Remind you of anything?)

Grouping. Perhaps it’s inevitable: perhaps it’s unavoidable. The only way for Anthony to resist one group (Scytheon) is to take refuge in another (Victor-Sierra). It’s not so different from the position all the non-dolls are put in. They have to choose sides. Nobody can stand alone. And who’s the only hope? Echo, who consitutes a group in herself. She embraces that, masters it, succeeds in integrating her many selves into a whole, just as she succeeds in dominating the military groupthink she voluntarily adds to her inner matrix.

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 21: "A Love Supreme"

Alpha’s back. And he’s more fun than ever, now that he’s gone Beau Brummel. And yet it feels like an odd time for him to come back – with only a few episodes left in the whole series, isn’t this just a distraction? Shouldn’t we get on with How the World Ends? And yet again, when he taunts Echo it serves nicely to bring Ballard’s behavior in the previous episode into focus. Was Ballard’s gentlemanly reticence an expression of love? Or disdain for composite humans?

Perhaps Alpha’s recurrence is just a way to shake things up again. Last episode we got a realignment of the key players in the Dollhouse: by the end we had Ballard, Boyd, and Echo on one side, fighting to bring down Rossum, and DeWitt on the other, now committed to Rossum, with Topher kind of caught in the middle. In this episode we get, for a little while, Topher joining Echo’s cabal – but then by the end DeWitt is made aware of Echo’s situation, too. And for a moment we think they’re all back on the same side. But then… The last shot of the episode is a closeup on DeWitt’s face, with some inscrutable expression on it. Where does she go from here?

Pause on the moment when Topher’s brought into the conspiracy. What does he say when he sees Echo calling up an imprint on her own? “I’m obsolete.” He’s speaking as a programmer – but he could be speaking for everyone in the face of the technology he’s helped introduce. The old-fashioned single-minded, single-bodied human is obsolete. And soon to be endangered.

More on the Matrix echoes we noted last time. That series was about hacking the System that keeps us all under control, and then about Neo learning how to hack reality. Dollhouse is about hacking the brain, which is our own individual reality. And it’s less sanguine about the whole idea of hacking than Matrix was: there the hacker was a hero, the anarchist who can bring down the Machine. Here the hacker is all too easily co-opted by the Machine, and the hack is the ultimate means of control. …In this episode we have perhaps the closest parallel yet, when it’s suggested that Dollhouse tech has turned humanity, collectively, into a computer. Alpha introduces a virus into the house’s computer, but it manifests itself in the dolls – they go all Agent Smith on their handlers.

There’s something being said about knowledge here, I think. Topher and Rossum have hacked the brain, i.e., they’ve bashed their way in, to a point where they can manipulate it, make it do what they want. They understand it – they’ve unlocked its mysteries – and that understanding gives them control. But that understanding does something else – it changes, somehow, the object of knowledge. Because somebody now knows how the brain works, and how to work it, all possessors of brains have now become objects of control – we’re no longer autonomous agents, but, potentially at least, someone else’s uncomplaining tools.

It’s a scary-sci-fi trope, right, the Scientist who Delved Too Deep, the New New Prometheus. Topher may have the best of intentions (and sometimes it seems like he might), but in the end his development and use of technology is no less reckless than Alpha’s. But being a truism doesn’t make it any less true. Knowledge is power. Power can be used to help people – but as Adelle reminded us in the last episode, power’s primary imperative is always to gain more power. Power doesn’t serve anybody: we all serve power.

And then, as in Matrix, we have the Hero. In this case the Heroine. Someone who’s learned to transcend the programming, do the impossible – someone who, we know, will lead the freed to a safe zone, a Zion. Is Echo the One? She denied it strenuously in “Omega” – she retains her slave-name, which underlines her status as a double, not a unique entity. But she’s embracing that nonuniqueness as her essence, her own identity. So she’s not the One, but she is the Many – she contains multitudes.

What’s the Love Supreme? Alpha’s obsession with Echo? Echo’s love for Ballard, which prevents her from killing Alpha even though Ballard begged her to? Or is it the unconditional, pure love that Echo is able to give each and every client? She can be what everyone needs her to be – which is one way to think of a Savior.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 20: "Meet Jane Doe"

1. Ballard once knowingly slept with a doll, and he couldn’t forgive himself for it. Now Echo throws herself at him, and he refuses. In his mind, sleeping with Echo would be just like sleeping with November: wrong, because it’s using somebody’s body without her permission. But is he right? Echo doesn’t think so. She asserts that she is someone in her own right, an agency, not just a placeholder for Caroline (“Jane Doe” isn’t just a stand-in for a name, it’s also a name). This means she has the right to sleep with Ballard if she wants to: she is qualified to make that decision. Ballard can’t bring himself to agree, and that’s because he still can’t accept Echo for what she is. In his mind she’s something unnatural that will one day have to be put to sleep so that Caroline can wake up. It’s a great science-fictiony dilemma – but note how Mutant Enemy give it to us through echoing Ballard’s earlier encounter. We as viewers are being asked to remember the earlier episode, and what it meant, and note how things have changed, and what that means: we’re expected to notice the parallels, and the productive deviations. This is called subtlety.

2. Keith Carradine is a marvel as Harding. He projects evil, sure, but what evil: he plays the character with a casual, almost avuncular air that constantly throws the viewer off balance. You know he’s evil, and he never disappoints, but he never telegraphs his evil. He plays Harding as a man completely comfortable with his own evil.

3. Topher. Well, he finally did it this time. Now we know that it really is all, all his fault. And Adelle is, of course, right when she accuses him of partially faking his horror at this new tech. He didn’t make detailed schematics because he wanted to destroy them: he made them because he wanted to make them.

4. Adelle. Her betrayal of Topher, turning the plans for the Doomsday Device over to Harding, is a key moment in the series. It comes as a shock, because somehow we’ve been lulled into liking her. More than that, we’ve allowed ourselves to start thinking of her as on the side of good – she’s against Harding, so she must be alright at heart, right? But what’s happened now? Is she really just selling out to save herself, as she tells Harding? Or was she ever really opposed to Rossum’s aims in the first place? Or is she, as her eyes seems to suggest in her final confrontation with Topher, doing this to protect him somehow? What’s her relationship with Topher anyway? There’s more there than meets the eye.

5. Echo. There’s something Matrixy about seeing her Rolodex through her imprints in search of one that knows how to ride a motorcycle. Of course there’s a lot of Matrix in Dollhouse: you could write a thesis on how Dollhouse reflects/refracts/riffs on that movie’s key themes and motifs.

6. I have to say, though… Rushing forward three months in time. It sapped a lot of tension out of the episode for me. A lot of developments (Harding’s ascent, Topher’s adoption of Bennett’s chair design, the decision to imprint dolls as scientists, etc.) were thrown at us all at once, rather than the three or four episodes it would have taken to introduce all this stuff properly. Nothing was given time to breathe. I’m not saying each episode has to take place in a day, but still: maybe Aristotle was onto something with that unity of time business. I do feel the cracks are starting to show in Season 2, in terms of M.E. rushing toward a conclusion.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rank and File: "Coyote" (1982)

The overture hits you in Cinemascope and Technicolor: a big echoey dry wash of harmonica. This subsides into a freight-train rhythm, taut bass and drums against a Monument-Valley sky. Rawhide guitar. Then the vocals, big harmonies, the Byrds meet the High Lonesome Sound. That's the refrain: the verse is the opposite, a tough-as-rusty-wire deep hiccupy drawl, like Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly's ashes blown together in a desert dust storm.

Rank and File were the best country band of the '80s, which was no mean achievement considering their nucleus was a couple of LA punks, brothers Tony and Chip Kinman, augmented by a Mexican-American guitarist (Alejandro Escovedo, who's gone on to slightly bigger things). They more or less invented cowpunk (along with the Blasters, sort of, and X, in their Knitters mode). Their debut album, 1982's Sundown, is one of my favorite records ever. Not a note out of place, not a track that's not totally stacked.

And "Coyote" was their epic, their yelp, a widescreen yearning after cowboy myths. It's the song that introduced me to them (I heard it on WHFS, and was instantly hooked).

What I didn't realize instantly, and in fact not for about twenty years, was that it's also one of the most gut-wrenching songs about illegal immigration, the US-Mexico border, you'll ever hear.

The refrain is tactful. "Coyote, why did you take me so far from home? / Coyote, why did you leave me? I'm all alone" (or "why did you leave me out all alone" - I can't quite tell which it is. Evocative Old West imagery, right? Kind of an impressionistic cowboy blues, right?

But then dig the first verse, delivered in that drawl, but fast, hard, matter-of-fact and unforgiving, so gaunt you might miss the words entirely:

"Well they asked the rancher's son what happened to the lad
Oh, I don't know but we di'n't do nothin' bad
And what's all the fuss
They ain't like us.
They don't matter anyway.
Took their hands and we bound them up with wire
And when the sun went down they felt the fire."

That's one point of view, that of the Arizona (maybe) border kid who finds illegals on his property, but not all of them. He knows there's someone missing, but he doesn't care; he takes the one's he's got, ties them up (none too carefully, because who really cares about a buncha Mexicans anyway? Note the utter bone driness of this, the bare suggestion of an observer (the "they," probably border patrolmen), the guilty conscience, the denial, the rage ("they felt the fire"). You have to hear it to get the full impact, though, the way the country yodel in Tony's voice breaks through on "anyway," and all it implies.

Now here's the other point of view, that of the missing lad:

"Yeah the sun pushed him down and the moon pulls him up
He's all alone and he cries like a pup
My mothers, my sisters, no I don't know
And the cold wind blows
I wanna go home but I'm too far north
And the cry comes for hi-yo, hi-yo, coyote"

Brutalized by his very environment (manhandled by sun and moon), he's reduced to an animal, almost a coyote himself - but of course the coyote is the real animal here, and by this point you realize we're not talking about a coyote that runs on all fours, but they kind that drives a van and accepts money to point people across the desert, to lead or abandon them as the mood strikes, to contribute (like the rancher's son) to the fact that in FY 2009, 213 people died trying to cross the border south of Tucson. Which is where I was driving away from this past Sunday morning, Rank and File's first album blasting in the rental car's speakers, and when this song came on I had to choke back tears, since I'd just read that little statistic in the Star that very morning.


Sundown, along with their second album, Long Gone Dead, and a handful of bonus tracks, was released on CD in 2003 on Rhino's collector's label, Rhino Handmade. It was a limited edition: I have number 2159 of 2500. I like to think I had a little to do with getting this released: a couple of years before that I emailed Dr. Rhino a suggestion that they release Rank and File: and then they did. I was very pleased.